A NEW NAVAL PREDATOR
By : Frédéric Lert
Copyright : Frédéric Lert
A NEW NAVAL PREDATOR
The Exocet anti-ship missile is being installed on the H225M, infusing the Brazilian navy, which launched the project, with new energy.
IN DECEMBER 2008 AS PART OF ITS H-XBR PROGRAM, BRAZIL CHOSE AIRBUS HELICOPTERS’S TWIN–ENGINE H225M TO EQUIP ITS NAVY, AIR FORCE AND ARMY. IT ORDERED 50 AIRCRAFT: 16 FOR EACH OF THE THREE BRANCHES OF THE MILITARY, PLUS TWO REMAINING CRAFT WITH VIP CONFIGURATIONS, RESERVED FOR TRANSPORTING GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS. IN THIS FIRST QUARTER OF 2017, 26 HELICOPTERS HAVE ALREADY BEEN DELIVERED BY HELIBRAS (AIRBUS HELICOPTERS’S BRAZILIAN SUBSIDIARY) AND DELIVERIES ARE SCHEDULED TO CONTINUE AT A RATE OF FOUR AIRCRAFT PER YEAR. THE LAST OF THE HELICOPTERS SHOULD BE DELIVERED IN 2022, WHICH IS SIX YEARS LATER THAN THE 2016 DATE SET OUT IN THE ORIGINAL CONTRACT. THE DELAY IS DUE TO THE BRAZILIAN GOVERNMENT’S REQUEST TO AMORTIZE PAYMENTS. THE FACT THAT THE TOTAL NUMBER OF 50 HELICOPTERS HAS BEEN MAINTAINED DESPITE ECONOMIC DIFFICULTIES IS PROOF THE IMPORTANT ROLE THE AIRCRAFT PLAYS IN BRAZIL’S PLANS FOR EQUIPPING ITS MILITARY. IT ALSO TESTIFIES TO THE SCOPE OF THE INDUSTRIAL INITIATIVE IN BRAZIL, SINCE THE CARACALS FOR THE H-XBR PROGRAM ARE NOW ASSEMBLED IN HELIBRAS’S IMPRESSIVE PLANT IN ITAJUBA, THE FACILITIES IN ITAJUBA, WHICH OPENED IN APRIL 2012, REFLECT THE AMBITIOUS PATH THE AIRBUS HELICOPTERS SUBSIDIARY HAS FOLLOWED SINCE SIGNING THE CONTRACT. FOLLOWING THE INITIAL DELIVERY OF THE FIRST HELICOPTERS PRODUCED IN FRANCE, HELIBRAS TOOK OVER ASSEMBLY OF THE AIRCRAFT. AT THE SAME TIME, THE COMPANY DEVELOPED ITS MAINTENANCE ABILITIES TO SERVICE THE BRAZILIAN MILITARY’S CURRENT AND FUTURE FLEET. IT THEN WENT ON TO DEVELOP ITS RESEARCH DEPARTMENT, INCREASING PERSONNEL FROM HALF A DOZEN TO OVER 40 ENGINEERS IN FIVE YEARS. IT IS NOW CAPABLE OF PILOTING THE ENTIRE DEVELOPMENT PHASE FOR OPERATIONAL EQUIPMENT AND MISSION SYSTEMS. WITH THESE NEW CAPABILITIES AND EXPERTISE, HELIBRAS SET TO WORK ON A NEW VERSION OF THE H225M, ONE THAT IS OPTIMIZED FOR ANTI–SURFACE COMBAT. THE KEY ADVANCE IS THE INCLUSION OF MBDA’S AM39 BLOCK 2 EXOCET MISSILE.
Strength and modernity
On the outside, the helicopter is easy to distinguish from the classic model by its sponsons, which have been made smaller to accommodate the Exocet missiles mounted on either side of the fuselage. The total volume of the reservoir found in each sponson is unchanged however, since only the fuel filler valve has been modified. Since the aircraft is 4.7 meters long, with a mass of 650 kilograms, plus another 120 kilograms for the mounting pylon, managing its center of gravity was a major concern for the research and development team. They relied on the precedent set by the Chilean Navy’s Super Puma AS532, which can also carry two Exocet missiles. “The mounting on the AS532s dates back 20 years,” the team in Itajuba explained. “The Chilean helicopters needed four workstations for the missiles and radar. The more modern H225M only needs one polyvalent station.” With two missiles, five crew members and a totally full fuel tank, the helicopter is far from reaching its maximum take-off weight of 11 metric tons. Other changes that are immediately apparent include the APS143 “OceanEye” radar by Telephonics (which is also found on the Sikorsky Sea Hawk) and the Star Safire electro-optronic system.
The aircraft also has Saab IDS3 self-defense sensors at several places on its fuselage and boom. In an anti-surface mission, the optimally equipped Caracal also comes with a control console for a tactical coordinator in the hold. “The console centralizes all of the information from the sensors and allows the coordinator to prepare for missile launch,” they explained in Itajuba. “All of the information can also be sent to the dashboard in the cockpit, where the mission commander, seated on the left, can see it.” The Helibras research department integrated the electro-optronic system, radar and electronic countermeasures system. They also carried out the vibration and missile charge studies. Three pilot campaigns took place in 2014, 2015 and 2016 for a total of 140 flight hours on the first equipped helicopter, which will also be the first of its series. The missiles will not be fired as part of the certification program: the Brazilian Navy will have to test them to definitively confirm the compatibility of the Caracal with Exocet missiles. Full operational performance is expected for late 2017 or early 2018, with delivery of the five helicopters ordered scheduled at a rate of one per year, from 2018 through 2022.
MRO saves the day
By that date, the H-XBR contract will be fully executed and Helibras will have to find replacement business. The original plan was for the H225 chain to change its focus to the Oil & Gas sector. However, that market is down worldwide, and Brazil is no exception. Petrobras, the biggest local player, still has half a dozen H225s. Despite the EASA decision authorizing operators to fly them again (following the H225 crash in April 2016 in Norway), Petrobras is still waiting for the British and Norwegian authorities to give the green light. Though the civilian H225 market remains weak in Latin America, Helibras could still do considerable business in the maintenance, retrofit and obsolescence management markets for the oldest Puma and Super Puma fleets in the region. The light- and medium-lift Ecureuil and Panther helicopter market is also being considered. For the Brazilian military alone, 34 Panthers and 36 Ecureuils are being modernized by Helibras; Chile and Argetina have similar needs.
Brazil: a hard-hit civilian market
Helibras was founded in 1978 and is present at five sites:
• Itajuba: final assembly and heavy maintenance
• San Paulo: commercial headquarters and light maintenance
• Rio de Janeiro: Navy and civilian training center,
with the only H225 simulator in Latin America
• Atibaia: logistical warehouses near the airports in Campina and Sao Paulo
• Brasilia: corporate headquarters shared with the Airbus Group
Like all the region’s helicopter manufacturers, Helibras has been hit hard by the collapse in the civilian market over the past two years. “But we’re at the end of the downward trend,” predict employees. Until 2014, Helibras sold about 25 helicopters per year on the civilian market (VIPs, multinationals, semi-public organizations). But in 2015 everything stopped suddenly, with certain orders even cancelled after down payments had been made.
By the end of the year, only two aircraft had been sold! Helibras plans to sell seven helicopters in 2016, and is aiming for nine in 2017. As business slowly returns, the company is focusing on its first sales of H175s and H160s … Until things are back to normal, the Brazilian subsidiary is developing its services and third-line industrial support offers.